The Vocabulary of Reading a Papyrus Roll

When I was writing an earlier post that mentioned papyrus rolls, I realized that it was difficult to describe certain physical aspects of rolls. Here is what I wrote:

“Normally when a papyrus roll was rolled up, the text was on the inner surface of the roll, and the beginning of the text on the roll was positioned so that it would be the first thing readers encountered when they unrolled it.”

What I intended to describe was the position on the roll of the beginning of the written text (for scripts that are read from left to right). A reader would hold the bulk of the roll in the right hand, unwinding the roll into the left hand. For example, the youth depicted on this kyathos with a papyrus roll appears to be reading the beginning of the roll, grasping the end of the roll in the left hand while holding almost the entire roll still rolled up in the right hand:

Attic red figure vase showing a youth reading a papyrus roll, Berlin Altes Museum (Antikensammlung) F2322 ; image source: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0

As one progressed through the roll, the sections that had been read would naturally curl into the left hand as the roll unrolled from the right hand. One can see this part of the reading process in many ancient depictions. Below is an image from a sarcophagus assigned to the third century CE in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Some of the roll is rolled up in the left hand; some of it remains rolled up in the right hand:

Panel from a sarcophagus in the Capitoline Museum, Musei Capitolini, Inventario Sculture, S 2414; image source: Brent Nongbri 2020

Eventually, if a user read all the way to the end of the roll, the roll would be gathered almost entirely in the left hand, with right hand just holding the very end of the roll.

At this point, the (polite) user would “rewind” the roll so that the next user could open it up at the beginning of the text. We don’t really know the exact mechanics of this process, but Theodore Skeat has some disciplined speculation in a short article: T. C. Skeat, “Two Notes on Papyrus,” in Edda Bresciani et al. (eds.), Scritti in onore di Orsolina Montevecchi (Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice, 1981), 373-378.

So, back to my descriptive problem: Maybe it would be best to distinguish between:

  • the “inner” and “outer” surfaces of rolls
  • the “inner” and “outer” portions of rolls

So, in a roll that is rolled up in the normal fashion, the text would be on the inner surface of the roll; the beginning of the text would then be both inscribed on the inner surface of the roll and positioned on the outer portion of the roll (that is, far from the center or core of the rolled up roll). The beginning of the text would not generally be the very outermost portion of the roll; that would be the protokollon, or first sheet of the roll, usually left blank and attached to the roll with an opposite fiber orientation.

I think this kind of description works reasonably well, but I’m still not totally satisfied. Is there a better vocabulary for talking about this kind of thing?

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24 Responses to The Vocabulary of Reading a Papyrus Roll

  1. James Dowden says:

    How do Jewish people rewind their Torah scrolls each year in synagogues? That should give a fair idea of the mechanics of rewinding.

    • I’m not an expert in modern Jewish practice, but I think typically Torah scrolls are attached to two poles or rods with handles and thus have a different type of mechanics. Some of this kind of thing is discussed in the Talmud:

    • Joe in Australia says:

      The Torah scrolls used in synagogues contain the entire (Hebrew) text of the Pentateuch. I have seen some tiny (say, 20 cm or 8″) examples, but those are very unusual. Almost all of them are too large amd too heavy to be read while they’re being held.

      I’m only familiar with Ashkenazi scrolls, which are simply covered with a mantle that’s removed before use. Some traditions keep their scrolls in a case called a “tik”. I have no idea how they’re rewound.

      Rewinding an Ashkenazi Torah scroll is a two person job. The scoll is laid flat on an inclined platform (the “bima”) and one person stands on each side, to the left and to the right of where the reader would normally stand. The beginning and end of the scoll are attached to staves, each of which passses through a disc and terminates with a handle at the top and bottom.

      Each person grasps the upper and lower handles of the side closest to them. The person at the end to be unwound rolls his end towards him, leaving a length of parchment unfurled. They then hold the handles of their end loosely, so that it can rotate freely. The person who is rolling up the scroll then rolls their end over the unfurled parchment, to wind it up; pulls their end back without letting it roll, to uncover more parchment; rolls their end forwards again to wind up the newly exposed parchment; and so on. It takes a while.

      This often needs to be done during a year, to expose part of the text for a forthcoming reading. In that case you often have three people: one pulling, one holding, and one keeping an eye on the text so they know when to stop.

  2. Dave Korinek says:

    Thanks for this illuminating description Brent!

  3. warkentg says:

    Martial (Epig. 2.6) uses the term eschatocollion for the last page of a roll, and in the same poem, umbilicus for the roller stick, by transfer from the knobs on the ends of said stick. I think eschatocollion may be a coinage of his own — can’t find it in the dictionaries and would like to know if anyone else can.

    • Yes, thanks for that observation! I don’t know of other references for that word. There’s an interesting example of something like this phenomenon (though on animal hide rather than papyrus) in the form of the “Temple Scroll” said to come from Qumran Cave 11. If you move to the end of the scroll to col. 67 (on the left rather than the right, since it’s Hebrew), you find an entire blank sheet stitched on to the last written sheet:

      • warkentg says:

        From the technological point of view that last blank sheet from Cave 11 is totally plausible. I don’t know if the use of animal hide makes much of a difference. There seem to be a number of references to animal skins being used for inscription. The Greek scholar who helped me out with a recent passage related to something I was looking at in Galen said it appeared to read as “the skin of a badger.” I didn’t know there were badgers in the Mediterranean ecumene!

  4. Martin Antonetti says:

    The term “portion” is a bit vague, isn’t it? How big is a “portion?” What constitutes a “portion?” Since the roll is composed of sheets of papyrus (or vellum) why not use the term “sheets” instead, as in “the beginning of the text is inscribed on the inner surface of the outer sheets of the roll”? The added advantage to the term “sheets” is that it can be easily and precisely quantified (as opposed to the term “portion”), as in, for example, “book 1 of the text is inscribed on the first 3 sheets (after the protokollon) of the roll.”

    • Thank you–This is a good suggestion. I like the ability to quantify in the way you suggest. I hesitate a bit with the particular word “sheet,” because it turns up so frequently in codicological discussions in reference to a bifolium, but there is fortunately an ideal Greek work ready at hand, at least in the case of papyrus rolls: κόλλημα.

      • Martin Antonetti says:

        I can’t speak as a papyrologist, but to a printing historian a sheet is, well, just a sheet (that is, the whole piece of paper or parchment). A bifolium is a sheet folded once, resulting in two leaves conjugate at the fold. But perhaps that nomenclature doesn’t apply to rolls …

  5. Seems good. Can you say what aspect you find unsatisfactory? Maybe inscribed or written surface?

  6. Ryan Baumann says:

    This comes up a lot with the Herculaneum papyri, where specialized vocabulary has developed to work with the distinction—the inner and outer portions of a roll are “sovrapposto” and “sottoposto”, respectively. I must admit that I can never quite keep them straight without looking them up.

  7. gregg schwendner says:

    Papyrologists tend to distinguish between “interior / exterior” for the sides of the papyrus roll, and “inner / outer” to distinguish relative positions on one side or the other.

  8. Jan Heilmann says:

    Thank you very much for the interesting post. Questions about dealing with scrolls have been on my mind for some time. Theodor Birt is very helpful here. But maybe you already know him. I did some on the vocabulary of reading in my habilitation thesis. My open question is whether scrolls were rolled back by scribes and readers, or whether they were not transported and stored in the “read out” state.
    Some pictorial representations of stored roles point into that direction.

    • Thanks for this comment. Yes, Birt was where I first encountered the Berlin kyathos illustrated in the post. It is a most useful book. The question of rolling the scrolls back to the beginning is very interesting to me. The phenomenon of reused rolls should be able to tell us something about this. I’ve noticed that more often than not, when the blank exterior of a roll is reused, the writing on the exterior is often upside down relative to the writing on the interior. This suggests that the person reusing the papyrus picked it up in astate in which it was rolled back to the beginning. But many editors do not report this difference in orientation, so we need a more comprehensive survey to see if this observation holds up across the surviving corpus.

      • Germaine Warkentin says:

        Would this then be an opisthograph? And on the question of re-rolling, I’m wondering if in an elite house, or a library,doing so was the job of an upper slave.

      • Some people would use that term in this case, but I think we should just call them reused rolls. I like to think in terms of “writing acts.” The act of copying a text on a roll and then turning it over to continue the same text on the back is a quite different writing act from picking up a roll with a text on its front and then turning it over to use the back to write an unrelated text at some indeterminate time after the inscribing of the front side. For this reason, I like to reserve “opisthograph” for a continuously copied text on front and back (a single writing act) and the term reused roll for the latter case (two distinct writing acts). I find that this helps to avoid (at least some!) confusion.

  9. Germaine Warkentin says:

    Good — you’re right about the distinction. But does anyone have ideas about re-rolling?

  10. Since “opisthograph” has been used with quite different definitions (and different spellings: opistograph), I find that term not very useful.

  11. Robrecht says:

    “… the (polite) user would ‘rewind’ the roll so that the next user could open it up at the beginning of the text.”

    Perhaps the great library of Alexandria didn’t burn down after all. Maybe they just went out of business when better technology (codices) came along, sort of like Blockbuster & VHS tapes:

  12. Cat Atherton says:

    Remember, ‘Be Kind, Please Rewind’ on VCR tapes? I have often wondered if some rolls had little notes at the end reminding the reader to wind the scroll back up. There are references in ancient literature, I think, to twerps who didn’t do this. Some of the papyri in the Herculaneum collection hadn’t been re-wound.

  13. Some thoughts on the proposed term “sheet” and some on the re-rolling, and thank you for the interesting post(s).

    I’m a book conservator and not a papyrologist at all, but perhaps my peripheral knowledge is helpful.
    As I often work with manuscripts from the Islamic world, the available (mostly western) terminology caused problems when documenting the objects, and in teaching as well. That is why I co-authored a Terminology for the Conservation and Description of Islamic Manuscripts (which focusses on the codex, not the scroll). We differentiate between “sheet”, “folio” (that could be substituted by “leaf”), “bifolio” and “page”. “Sheet” stands somewhat alone:
    “A unit of support material, usually differentiating it as a totality from some other state caused by subsequent trimming or folding. For example, it can refer to the unit of paper as it comes off the papermaker’s mold, before it is trimmed. Or, it can refer to a unit of support after it has been trimmed but to distinguish it from smaller pieces that may then be cut from it. Or, it may refer to a piece of support material that has been folded into two or more parts, since the number of parts resulting from the folding do not affect the unity of the original piece.” (
    It seems that it would work well to describe the sheets of papyrus just that.

    When it comes to how the reader or the material would behave at the end of the roll, I would think that the roll itself suggested the return to its former shape. The outer end, that was rolled up more tightly than the beginning, has a stronger tendency to roll up and would have a smaller curve than the roll then held on the left side (in case of left to right reading). The material itself seems to invite re-rolling, though a reader could of course ignore that signal.

  14. Pingback: More Papyrus Roll Vocabulary: frons, cornua, umbilicus | Variant Readings

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